Art Basel 2024: Flamboyance and Suspense

2. Christo, Wrapped 1961 Volkswagen Beetle Saloon,1963–2014

This year’s 54th edition of Art Basel incorporated 285 premier galleries from 40 countries and regions and attracted 91,000 visitors. Jörg Zutter presents his summary

Art Basel 2024, the world’s paramount international art fair, held on 1tht–16th June at Switzerland’s largest commercial trade fair complex on the right bank of the river Rhine, a decade ago inaugurated a new extension designed by Herzog & de Meuron.

This year’s 54th edition of Art Basel incorporated altogether 285 premier galleries from 40 countries and regions and attracting in total 91,000 visitors (an increase of 9,000 from last year). For one week, the fair is doubtless the world’s epicentre, power plant and trendsetter for artists, collectors, art lovers, designers, architects and culture enthusiasts, and also a welcome gauge for assessing the market situation, its dynamic and evolution.

This time the fair again had its many fringe events scattered across the city, among them the sculpture trail Parcours including site-specific projects and installations and discussion platforms to boot, and not forgetting the neighbouring vital Liste Art Fair hosting 90 debuting galleries representing emerging artists.


Certainly, the subdued mood of the art market was palpable. Sotheby’s and Christie’s recent 20th-century sales in New York (marking a contraction of more than 20 per cent on last year’s equivalent auctions, followed by the announcement by two houses of reducing their staff) were not forgotten, notwithstanding the early success stories of some mega galleries. Among the most significant early sales: David Zwirner sold the diptyque Sunflowers of 1991 by Joan Mitchell for $20 million as well as the Abstract Painting of 2016 by Gerhard Richter for $6 million.

Hauser & Wirth immediately divested some top works, among them Arshile Gorky’s Untitled (Gray Drawing (Pastoral) of 1946 for $16 million and Philip Guston’s canvas Orders of 1978 for $10 million. These examples highlight a few market leaders, which were all gathered on the ground floor, offering their treasures in clinical white booths and in the fair’s best strategic position, forming an inner square and a kind of hemmed-in boulevard facing the central open-air courtyard with its inviting bars, buffets and shady trees clearly visible through the ceiling-high glass facades.

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1. François-Xavier Lalanne, Grand Bouquetin, 2007

But let’s start at the beginning of this year’s fair: in the new gigantic aluminium-clad, streamlined exhibition halls at each side of the Messeplatz. First, the 18th edition of Design Miami, a parallel fair which showed up highly appraised stylish furniture and collectible design objects from over 25 exhibitors (including 10 debut names). The general taste here was partially determined by some Parisian galleries proposing much courted modernist objects. Patrick Seguin offering sublime and stylish objects by Jean Prouvé, Charlotte Perriand and Le Corbusier.

Galerie Mitterrand instead featuring highly desirable animal sculptures by the French artists couple Claude et François-Xavier Lalanne whose decorative sculptures objects went against the grain in the 1960s when abstraction was on the agenda (1). One of the reasons that Eva Presenhuber decided to participate may have been the goal of diversifying her business. The successful Zurich art dealer, the only gallery participating simultaneously at both fairs, dedicated a one-man show to Franz West, showcasing the stunning minimalist furniture of the Austrian artist she represents.


On the other side of the Messeplatz, the more experimental, or diverting (and perhaps also less commercial) part of Art Basel, Unlimited, excited especially young collectors. It included more than thirty artists, all sponsored by individual galleries of Art Basel. The Wrapped 1961 Volkswagen Beetle Saloon by Christo (proposed for $4 million by Gagosian, 2, top of page) was one of the meaningful contributions, since it laid bare both the gigantism and upbeat mood of Herzog & de Meuron’s architecture (conceived in a period of facile optimism) and the haunted state of the art market today.

Nevertheless, there were a few touching installations as, for example, Reinhard Mucha’s Island of the Blessed (2016), a carpet of old clay roof tiles clearly evoking the sensitive issue of the worldwide destruction of our urban landscape (proposed by the galleries Lia Rumma, Bärbel Grässlin, Luhring Augustine, Sprüth Magers). Stirring was also the black-and-white series of the Swiss photographer Robert Frank, The Americans (1955–1957), including 84 photographs documenting his trip across America from 1955 to 1957 and divulgating a sobering personal image, virtually the flip side of the American dream (Zander Galerie and Pace Gallery, 3).

3. Robert Frank, one of the 84 photographs of The Americans, 1955-1957

This year’s edition of Unlimited, compared to the 2023 edition, suffered a bit under a somehow labyrinthic display. It was also more introspective, less consistent and missing one or two highlights. David Zwirner was the gallery that presented three artists: Yayoi Kusama, Sigmar Polke, Dan Flavin (whose estate the gallery holds and to whom the Kunstmuseum Basel had simultaneously dedicated a monographic show). Hauser & Wirth instead showed Jenny Holzer, Zoe Leonard and Henry Taylor, whereas the gallery’s brand-new branch in Basel, opposite to the Kunstmuseum, opened with an exhibition of the Danish Symbolist painter of interiors Vilhelm Hammershøi.

Many circumstances indicated that numerous participants are exploring new or additional ways of promoting their key artists. Similar ponderations could be detected from the exhibition programs of Basel’s fine art museums: the Museum Tinguely, dedicated to the mechanic art of the Jean Tignuely, tries to expand its audience in showing the installations of US American artist Mika Rottenberg, a detractor of consumerism to some extent in the footsteps of the famous Swiss artist whose work the museum permanently hosts. The Kunsthalle showed the watercolours by the female, black American artist, Toyin Ojih Odutola (born in Nigeria and active in New York).


The Kunstmuseum, too, is flying the flag more often for female artists as well as for black American or African artists. That the quality of these manifestations may not always meet many visitors’ high expectations of this outstanding Swiss museum of old and modern masters, became evident in the rather mediocre show Ingenious Women: Women Artists and their Companions. Included here – unfortunately – were exclusively second rate works of Italian and North European female painters from the 16th to the 18th century and inexplicably excluding the work of the key artists like Artemisia Gentileschi.

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4. Chéri Chérin, Obama Revolution, 2009

Another exhibition, which attracted a lot of attention (not always to its advantage), was held at the Gegenwart section of the Kunstmuseum on the Rhine and embracing mainly South African and only a few additional painters active on the African continent, like the Congolese painters Chéri Samba and Chéri Chérin (4), but all the more numerous were African American and a few African British artists. The exhibition When We See US (with the ambitious subtitle “A Century of Black Figuration in Painting”), organised in cooperation with the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa in Cape Town, including many loans from the Jorge M. Pérez Collection in Miami (the collector is the patron of the new Pérez Art Museum Miami designed by Herzog & de Meuron), was sadly in no way a representative overview of the dynamic and protruding painting tradition – sculptural works were regrettably absent – of this Black Continent and its diaspora in the UK and the US. The group show, which had been almost over-propagandized with posters, banners, stickers, flyers etc. all over town, had another handicap: the tasteless and, for these too long overlooked artists, misguided exhibition design in a trendy boutique hotel style.


Let’s return to the fair! What were the other notable observations? On the ground floor of the old Messe hall, Max Hetzler’s booth drew a lot attention, especially the paintings by Albert Oehlen, an artist the gallery has promoted for about three decades, and further canvases by the two American artists Eddie Martinez, and Sarah Crowner. On the second floor, Modern Art presented a stunning painting by René Daniels, Untitled (1980, €600,000, 5), a somewhat forgotten Dutch artist active in the 1980’s stuck out.

5. René Daniels, Untitled, 1980

Regen Projects proposed a colourful abstract painting by Daniel Richter, Not So Funky Times (2021, €420,000). Stephen Friedman suggested a black-and-white painting by the Swedish painter Mamma Andersson, The Second Fiddle of 2022 (6). The artist draws her imagery mainly from movie images, theatre sets or period interiors. Tanya Bonakdar presented a fascinating textile artist, Analia Saban, born in Buenos Aires and active in Los Angeles. Among the further textile art presented, worth mentioning are the fibre artworks by the illustrious Bulgarian-Chinese couple Maryn Varbanov and Song Huai-Keui, aka Madame Song (7), both exhibited at BANK Gallery. Varbanov was one of the earliest proponents of the fibre arts movement in Europe, participating in several Lausanne Biennials in the 1960s and 1970s.

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6. Mamma Anderson, The Second Fiddle, 2022
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7. Maryn Varbanov, Bleu Mise en Rapport, 1978

Nicolas Krupp revealed an astonishing colourful dot painting by the Japanese artist Onoda Minoru, Work 64-X (1964, CHF250,000, 8), an eminent member in the 1960s and 1970s of the radical Gutai movement whose style recalls the motley spot-style of Yayoi Kusama. Esther Schipper presented the inspiring canvas Dark blue Bells IV of 2023 (9) by the Canadian artist Sojourner Truth Parsons, whose work in terms of her colours and forms is of astonishing vitality and female identity and stood in strong contrast to the displayed cross-section reliefs by the Paris-based Albanian video and film artist Anri Sala. A few works of this type of reliefs by the artist were simultaneously presented in the Kunstmuseum Basel where they dialogued with the old masters.

8. Onoda Minoru, Work 64-X, 1964


By and large, this year’s Art Basel was again very versatile, full of surprises and of high quality. No artistic trends or media really dominated the fair – black American painters didn’t get the attention they earned in the past years, and fewer photo, video or installation artists seem to be on the market. Instead, textile or fibre artworks attracted astonishingly great attention.

However, collectors seem to have become more reserved. A mood of reflection and repositioning is underway and the early sales of some mega galleries have also been met with a certain skepticism. The London-based Sadie Coles, who this year presented a terrific booth, commenting on the news on the last day of Art Basel 2024 of the death of Barbara Gladstone, a famous talent spotter and the late grand old lady in the contemporary art world: “Barbara will remain my reference point for integrity, fairness and rigour, and as a marker for resisting the mega-gallery model.”

9. Sojourner Truth Parsons, Dark Blue Bells IV, 2023-2024

An emergency call? For many medium-sized galleries it certainly was. But it’s also a persuasive note to overthink the situation and confront the danger of a certain monopolization, replication, flattening and over-commercialization which is in clear contradiction with the interests, needs and aspirations of the creative artist, who is still the protagonist of the fair.

Illustrations and Art Basel Review by Jörg Zutter

Images 1-6, 8 and 9 by the author, 7 by Tanya Bonakdar Gallery

See also: Flowers Gallery Presents Artist of the Day

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